Who Was U.S. Deputy Marshal Leonard Arms?

South Deerfield left its mark on the Wild West, including the death of Deputy U.S. Marshal Leonard Arms, gunned down in the line of duty on April 20, 1860 in Topeka, Kansas Territory.

The shooting occurred less than a year before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, Charleston Harbor, SC, and four years into a border war between Missouri and Kansas Territory over the slavery issue. The South Deerfield lawman was trying to serve what anti-slavery Free-Staters viewed as an invalid Missouri arrest warrant on John Ritchie at his Topeka home.

When Ritchie objected, explaining that the charges had been long-ago forgiven, he told Arms to get lost and went inside. The deputy followed, imploring Ritchie to surrender before the combatants raised their revolvers. When Arms ignored Ritchie’s warning to come no further, Ritchie killed him instantly with a shot to the throat.

Ritchie, a devoted abolitionist and supporter of radical John Brown – yes, that John Brown, from his Bloody Kansas days – was a pillar of the infant Topeka community. Knowing all the town officials as friends and neighbors, he had little worry of severe consequence on the western frontier. He promptly surrendered, and was the next day acquitted on a murder charge by a friendly justice of the peace. The frontier judge ruled the shooting as justifiable homicide, and Ritchie walked away a free man.

Don’t forget we are talking here about Wild West justice. Didn’t a man have a God-given right to defend himself inside his own home when pursued by an armed invader?

Arms left a widow, Frances A. (Eldridge), and three daughters. His family lived in Wyandotte, Kansas Territory, where he managed a frontier hotel, the Eldridge House, owned by his brothers-in-law the Eldridge Brothers, a triumvirate of Shalor W. (1816-1899), Thomas B. (1825-1882), and Edwin S. Eldridge (1832-1907).

Second son Shalor was the best-known of six Eldridge boys born to Lyman and Phebe (Winchell) Eldridge of West Springfield and Southampton. The other three thus far unnamed were Lyman Jr. (1814-1905), James M. (1819-1857), and Joseph L., who was born in 1823 and living in Lawrence, Kansas, in 1863, but seems to have left no death or gravesite record.

There were also two Eldridge sisters, Mary E. and Leonard Arm’s aforementioned widow, Frances A. According to a story in Lawrence, Kansas’ Jeffersonian Gazette, Lyman Eldridge Sr., his wife and all eight of his children were among the early residents of Kansas Territory. According to Kansas Historical Society data, wife and mother Phebe was helping son Shalor run the American House hotel in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1855. She died in 1856 in Southampton, and is buried in Holyoke.


Westward Emigres

The Lyman Eldridge family was in Southampton, where the children attended school, by the mid-1820s. At age 20 Shalor started a prosperous, 11- or 12-year career as a railroad contractor, beginning with the Connecticut River Railroad and moving on to other New England and New York lines. That was likely what brought him to South Deerfield for the births of daughters Mary Jan. 5, 1842 and Josephine Phoebe (Jan. 26, 1846).

Also residing in South Deerfield at the time was his brother James Monroe Eldridge. There is no evidence that either Shalor or James owned property in Deerfield, but they clearly did live there in the 1840s and early 1850s.

In 1841, J.M. Eldridge took Naomi Sprague as his first wife in South Deerfield, where she died three years later. Though there is no birth recorded in the Deerfield Vital Statistics, a son named James was born to them in 1843.

J.M as a widower then married Mary Augusta Arms of that town in 1846. Their lone child, son Edwin C. Eldridge, was, according to the Greenfield newspaper, born in 1853 in the home still a stone’s-throw north of the Bloody Brook Monument.

Still a teen working as a store clerk, young James Eldridge was murdered during Quantrill’s Raid, a bloody daybreak attack unleashed upon Lawrence, Kansas, on August 21, 1863. On that fateful day, the victim’s father had been dead six years and his widowed stepmother and 10-year-old half-brother, the aforementioned Edwin C., were visiting their Arms family back in South Deerfield.


The Leonard Mystery

But enough on the Eldridges. Back to their brother-in-law, Leonard Arms – a mystery man of sorts.

Arms is said by many sources to be from South Deerfield, where, according to the Greenfield newspaper, he was “widely known.” Nonetheless, his lineage and birth have not to this day been pinned down.

Here’s what we do know about the fallen sheriff:

  • On September 19, 1842, according to a Greenfield Gazette and Courier notice, he was living in South Deerfield when he married Frances A. “Fannie” Eldridge in Vernon, Vermont;
  • In September 1844, he was listed among Deerfield supporters of Democrat James K. Polk, in the presidential election against Whig candidate Henry Clay;
  • In 1845, his daughter Frances was born in Deerfield;
  • In 1848, he was listed as a member of the Adams militia;
  • In the 1850 Census, he shows up as a shoemaker living in Adams with a wife and two young daughters.

Inaccurate information posted on Find A Grave and other online genealogical sources claim that Leonard Arms was the son of Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms of South Deerfield. That would make him the brother of the aforementioned Mary Augusta Arms, wife of J.M. Eldridge, which would make sense given their contemporaneous western migrations to Kansas with the New England Emigrant Aid Company.

But the fact is that were not biological siblings.

I know this because Erastus and Mary (Graham) Arms are my very own third-great-grandparents, and we grew up in the same South Deerfield neighborhood during different times. In my possession are old, detailed, family genealogical records typed by my great-grandmother, Fannie (Woodruff) Sanderson, Erastus and Mary’s granddaughter. Although grandfather Erastus died long before my great-grandmother was born in 1865, she would have known her own grandmother well. They were neighbors until Mary Arms died at 93, when Fannie was 22 years old. There is no hint of Leonard Arms anywhere in Fannie’s personal family register, which most likely was assembled with the help of neighborhood relatives.


An Earlier Sleuth

Is it possible that Erastus and Mary took in Leonard as extended family – perhaps the young son of a brother or brother’s wife who died? This was not unusual at the time. But none of Erastus’ brothers seem to line up, and none show the recorded birth of a son Leonard around 1820, when he is suspected to have been born.

The 1830 Census offers a faint clue, showing Erastus Arms as head of family with an unnamed male dependent between the age of 10 and 14. Could that be stepson Leonard, thus mistaken identity as a son in later Midwestern records? It’s possible, and also a potentiality that stepsister Mary Augusta, some six years younger, called him brother in Kansas.

What’s interesting is that I’m not the first person who’s tried to figure out Leonard Arms’ lineage. Greenfield historian Lucy Cutler Kellogg, author of the History of Bernardston (1902), was still trying to solve the vexing riddle 35 years after her book was published. Why not? Arms was an interesting figure with local roots, he being the victim of a famous Wild West killing. Kellogg must have stumbled across his story while compiling the genealogies for her Bernardston book, and she was still furiously trying to document his lineage on September 7, 1937, when she posted this classified ad in the Greenfield Recorder-Gazette:

“PAYMENT OFFERED for exact date of birth about 1820 and place of same (probably Bernardston or South Deerfield) of LEONARD ARMS, son of Lucius and wife Melitta (Squires) Arms. Mrs. Lucy Cutler Kellogg, 34 Highland Ave., Greenfield.”

I shared this ad with professional genealogist friend Dereka Smith of Hatfield, who set her investigative wheels in motion, confirming the Bernardston birth cited by Kellogg. There was a problem, though: That particular Leonard Arms survived less than three years.

The Kellogg citation did, however, introduce a new element that could contribute to solving our mystery. The Melitta Squires identified by Kellogg was from the same Bernardston family that produced Abigail Squires, the second wife of Josiah Arms, married between 1828 and 1830. And get this: Leonard Arms named his first daughter, born in 1844, Melita. So, it’s obvious what stirred Kellogg’s curiosity.


Revisiting Family

Josiah Arms was the youngest brother and next-door neighbor of the Erastus Arms family. His lone child with Abigail Squires was Obed Squires Arms, a future downtown Postmaster and boot and shoe dealer.

O.S. Arms’ post office and store stood in the Putnam Block (also known as Pierce Block) on the northeast corner of South Main Street. Behind his place of business stood his home, somewhere between where Wolfie’s Restaurant and the South Deerfield Polish American Citizen’s Club stand today. It may have been the 19th-century house I recall being demolished to extend the Polish Club’s parking lot.

Because the Squires family was a “late-comer” to Bernardston, arriving from Connecticut with stage driver and blacksmith Medad Squires (1774-1819) in the late 18th century, Kellogg’s genealogies don’t follow it. Online data on the family is also sketchy.

So, just one more dead-end in the Leonard Arms mystery. Data on Abigail Squires, second wife of Josiah Arms, is likewise sparse at best, and insufficient for definitively connecting the dots.

What we do know, however, is that, according to Greenfield newspaper reports, when Leonard Arms’ daughter, Elizabeth Augusta (born 1855 in North Adams), and her husband, Dr. Charles N. Hart, were passing through the Connecticut Valley in the spring of 1897 in search of a boarding school for their daughter, they stayed with Obed S. Arms for a few days.

Why would they have chosen as their host Postmaster Obed S., and not one of at least three Erastus Arms siblings in the same neighborhood? Hmmm. Could it have had anything to do with the Squires link? Or maybe a link to Josiah Arms – or his first wife Loana (Graham) Arms, the younger sister of brother Erastus’ wife Mary?

Who knows? It’s still a mystery, despite today’s Internet-driven genealogy craze. All you can do is keep pulling loose threads to see what unravels. Sooner or later, some obscure reference may solve the puzzle. Then again, maybe not.


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